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A Birthday Roast of Jack White’s ‘Boarding House Reach’

In which a fan and critic ponders what happens when her hero takes a fall.

Nicole Kitchens

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Happy birthday, sort of. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Jack White turns 43 today, and I remember the first time I ever witnessed him like it was yesterday. It was in my 7th grade guitar class, where our teacher had become so put out with our absolute refusal to actually play the guitar that he’d resulted in just putting on music documentaries.

For weeks, we would all pretend to watch movies like “The Song Remains the Same” and “Shine a Light,” really just texting on flip phones and throwing picks at each other, while my teacher probably sat at his desk wondering why the hell he took a job in secondary education.

When he introduced “It Might Get Loud,” I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to view: Jack White on a farm somewhere in Tennessee, building a makeshift guitar out of a Coke bottle, a few nails, a couple of pieces of wood, and a guitar pickup.

It was the only time our class would shut up for the entire semester.

I immediately went home and scoured YouTube for every White Stripes song I could find, and actually began paying attention in guitar class. I was hooked.

For me, an awkward girl with no sense of modern musical appreciation, Jack represented everything that I loved about the older styles of music. In a way, he was the person who I got most of my real musical education from. He taught me about the blues and how to really listen to artists like Son House or Blind Willie McTell. He taught me that even if you’re a music purist, you can still geek out over Led Zeppelin solos or Rolling Stones albums. He taught me that vinyl is always going to sound better than iTunes. He taught me that you can never have too many projects going on at once.

But most of all, at a time in my life where I was trying so hard to blend in with everyone around me, he taught me about individuality. I wouldn’t even be writing music reviews for CMN if it wasn’t for Jack White and his many lessons.

But “Boarding House Reach,” his latest album, didn’t teach me anything. Vapid and frantic, I didn’t even buy the damn vinyl. That’s how much I disliked it. It was a record that was supposed to be the pinnacle of musical creativity, the emphatic manifestation of artists growing and branching into other genres.

Instead, it was just a mess.

So in honor of Jack White’s 43rd birthday, I’m going to do the inconceivable: I’m going to blatantly roast “Boarding House Reach,” in hopes that if he ever reads this ill-written review (fingers crossed, everyone) maybe it’ll get through to him.

Let’s start with the fact that he raps on this album. As though “Lazaretto”‘s psychedelic funk wasn’t enough, White attempts to bridge off of that by rapping on tracks like “Ice Station Zebra,” combining elements of spaced out R&B, his usual noise and Beastie Boys rhymes. While the music was tolerable at best, it just becomes plain uncomfortable to listen to when his vocals kick in.

“Corporation” is an attempt to create an Eric Clapton-meets-Trent Reznor-meets-George Clinton funk vibe, and while the live versions (especially this performance at Warsaw in Brooklyn, which initially had me incredibly amped for the album) are electric in every way possible, the album version is boring and occasionally repetitive. “Respect Commander” had many points during the instrumental tune where Jack could’ve included a ripping guitar solo, or at least something…and then didn’t.

It sounds schizophrenic rather than remotely interesting.

That seems to be the main issue with this album as a whole: while Jack is known for having his own specific, rock-centered eccentricities on each album, he tries too hard to push it to the side on “Boarding House,” which often leaves listeners wondering if he was being held at gunpoint to create an especially boring record.

This is also a very interlude and jam heavy album, often making listeners feel as though it’s lacking something. Most of the songs aren’t even technically songs, which could have been an exciting situation for White, considering the album’s own concept of being overwhelmed by technology. Had he incorporated more instrumental solos instead of jittery sound bites, it could’ve worked. But it’s unsettling; as soon as the songs grab your attention, they lose you in the constantly shifting sounds. It sounds schizophrenic rather than remotely interesting.

“Over and Over and Over” is the one high point of this album, but in a disappointing way. It’s a radio single that just starts to get better the more and more and more you hear it.

“Hence the title,” a friend of mine joked upon the album’s release. I don’t like pushing lead singles from albums in reviews. I personally enjoy digging into a collection of songs and discovering things I might not listen to otherwise, like I just been going off radio or Spotify suggestions. But this is an album where, sadly, you’d do better to just stick to the singles and toss the rest.

It’s easy for music lovers to forget that Jack White is human. But despite his color schemed world, his prolific musical projects, and having one of his own songs proclaimed as the “biggest soccer anthem of all time,” he’s finally screwed up. It’s as easy as that.

Some worry that Jack has pigeonholed himself into the same few musical spectrums to the point that it’s discomforting to hear him try anything new. But that’s not necessarily true. Jack has proven time after time that he’s a shapeshifter, moving from simplified blues in The White Stripes, to full-on southern twang with The Raconteurs, to the desert tinged heaviness of The Dead Weather. He really can do anything, but completely overshot the limit of his range with his latest effort. It’s a straightforward case of flying too close to the sun and ultimately failing.

But still. Happy Birthday, Jack. Even though this album basically sucked, I still love you. And I’m counting down the seconds until your next album.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Nicole Kitchens is a Journalism major at the University of South Carolina. She is an avid music writer and once received an Instagram like from Keith Richards -- she hasn’t stopped talking about it since. To read more of her reviews and features, visit her blog: https://www.theelectricblonde.com/. Also, follow her Hunter-Thompson-esque adventures on Instagram: @nicolekitchens

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